Several elite American universities have recently been involved in increasingly dramatic debates over the meaning and value of free speech and intellectual diversity. Two weeks ago, the University of Virginia, my current home institution, was the site of an event sponsored by the state’s Department of Education called the “Higher Education Summit on Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity.” The summit generated pledges by the presidents of every state university in Virginia (and some private universities) to create “action plans” to advance the goals of free speech and intellectual diversity.
Last week, the presidents of Penn, Harvard, and MIT provided plenty of evidence on how they view these goals. They explained to Congress how their understanding of free speech and intellectual diversity did not allow them to protect their Jewish students from a range of actions taken in recent days by students and faculty on their campuses. The university presidents repeatedly hid behind the right to free speech, saying that the Constitution would not allow them to do more to suppress antisemitic advocacy on campus. Outraged by Penn President Liz Magill’s failure to more clearly and forcefully condemn antisemitism on its campus, several mega-donors to Penn announced they would not be giving any more money unless Magill was fired, and after one such donor effectively withdrew $100 million that had already been donated, Magill resigned this past weekend.
At the congressional hearing, Republican members of Congress such as Harvard alumna Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York asked the university administrators why it was unconstitutional for them to protect threatened Jewish students against antisemitic actions — including not just advocacy of intifada and Jewish genocide but targeted threats of violence, and in many cases the crimes of menacing and assault — but perfectly legal for them to have suppressed university professors’ views critical of affirmative action or transgenderism.
This question has an answer, but it is one that the testifying university presidents did not and perhaps could not provide. The answer is this: Free speech and intellectual diversity are inconsistent with the dominant ideology within the vast majority of contemporary American universities. This dominant ideology consists of a set of paired beliefs about the world and what should be done to change it. These beliefs, which I will call the progressive university party line, entail the even more significant and overarching belief that any disagreement with and dissent from core beliefs is a form of violence that must be suppressed.
Core Beliefs of Leftist Universities
The core beliefs of the progressive university party line include at least the following:
1. A system of oppression called systemic racism still permeates the United States. To redress such oppression, some number of people should be hired as faculty and staff and admitted as students because they belong to what are considered oppressed groups. And some such people should be given their positions even if they would be unqualified were they not members of the oppressed group.
2. Beyond its borders, the United States — like other developed countries, such as Israel — has waged a war of imperialist, colonial oppression against so-called people of color, a war in which a primary weapon has been the intellectual framework of the enlightenment, a framework whose purported objective search for truth is simply a façade used to devalue the alternative intellectual perspectives of oppressed people.
3. Without immediate and massive government intervention to stop fossil fuel producers from continuing their carbon emissions and to subsidize the development of wind and solar power, the Earth will suffer catastrophically harmful climate change.
4. The violent crime problem in America is due mostly to widespread legal gun ownership, so violent crime can be at least substantially reduced by severely restricting Americans from possessing firearms.
5. Any government restriction prohibiting a woman from aborting her child at any point after conception is an immoral, patriarchal infringement of her individual rights and liberty. Similarly, an individual’s freedom to use recreational drugs should not be restricted by the government.
6. The prevention of disease and illness justifies virtually any infringement of individual liberty ordered by the state or university.
It would be hard to argue that any of the beliefs listed are not part of the contemporary radical leftist university ideology. Huge and growing university bureaucracies — such as offices of so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and sustainability — exist to pursue these policy goals and to ensure that only those people who support these beliefs are hired as faculty and staff.
Danger of Dissent
Paramount among the core beliefs is one that follows directly from those listed: that dissent from any of the core beliefs represents a form of violent oppression that cannot be tolerated within the university.
This danger of dissent is a logical and ineluctable consequence of the listed core beliefs. The danger of dissent holds that to critique any of the core beliefs and espouse a contrary, dissenting view is to inflict harm upon members of the university community. This cannot be overemphasized: Dissent from any of the core beliefs is violence.
To see why this is true, consider just two of the core beliefs. If one opposes government regulations and orders restricting individual liberty to prevent the spread of illness or disease, then obviously one supports the spread of illness and disease. If one opposes gun control measures, then since guns cause violent crime, opposition to gun control causes harm. And so on with all of the core beliefs.
If one holds to the danger of dissent, one cannot justify steps to allow true intellectual diversity and freedom of expression. To hire faculty or admit students who challenge any of the core beliefs is to include in the community people who are prepared to cause harm. And to let them express their dissenting views is to let them harm the community.
This explains why universities are so intolerant of dissent. From their point of view, Ohio Northern University law professor and legal historian Scott Gerber had to be physically removed by police from his classroom because he had publicly questioned that university’s DEI mandate. And Penn Law professor Amy Wax, who has for years publicly and repeatedly questioned whether affirmative action in law school admissions has actually helped the students it is supposed to be helping, must be banned from teaching first years and charged with “major infractions” of university standards — charges which if confirmed by a faculty senate hearing board would trigger “major sanctions” and may include Wax’s termination as a tenured professor of law.
However, removing dissenting voices from universities does not explain why voices of antisemitic hate, intolerance, and even imminently threatened violence must be tolerated and encouraged. To understand this we need only to reflect on the core beliefs. Each of these posits that an oppressor group — white males, fossil fuel companies, religious opponents of abortion, gun manufacturers, colonial states such as Israel — is at this moment actively harming people in the oppressed group.
The oppressors are causing harm, and they must be stopped. There is no need to be worried about identifying precisely which oppressors are causing harm, for in the leftist view, responsibility and guilt are collective, not individual. There is also no halfway between opposing and supporting group oppression — one is either all in, working to expel and punish oppressors, or all out, effectively supporting oppression.
Given that it has defined itself around a set of core beliefs positing oppressor and oppressed classes, the contemporary leftist American university defines itself as a leader in a political and cultural war to stop ongoing harm and avenge wrongs suffered by oppressed groups. These universities are commanders in wars against racism, climate change, colonial oppression, and patriarchy. With this understanding, antisemitism is an attack on oppressors, and that is what the progressive university is all about.
Encouraging Analysis and Skepticism
These universities are not wrong in their belief that there is much that is evil and unjust in the world. But the goal of the university should not be to support highly politicized notions of precisely which problems are the most pressing and which policies should be adopted to address them. Instead, the university’s role is to guide students in acquiring the knowledge and analytical tools necessary to form their own beliefs about the world’s problems and potential solutions. Students should be encouraged to be skeptical of all accepted wisdom and to have the confidence and skills to independently advance the frontiers of knowledge.
The American university system is still the best in the world, and across our country, there remain many faculty and staff committed to the goals of guiding students in their acquisition of skills and knowledge. By jettisoning their political agenda, American universities will not only be able to see and respond to the present resurgence of antisemitism on campus, but they will also be able to realize their enormous potential for actually educating students for the future.